25 January 2008

A New York State Of Mind

When I decided to leave England and return to the United States, there was some uncertainty in my mind about which coast I was going to settle on. I was overwhelmingly in favor of New York, it's true, but there was a part of me that said California made more sense, mainly because I'd be close to my family and the handful of old friends (but really good old friends) who still live in the East Bay, but also because it would have been more affordable.

I wrestled with this dilemma for the better part of a year before deciding that since I wasn't getting any younger, it probably made the most sense to live where I most wanted to live, and for quite some time now, that has been New York. And now that I've been gone from London for over a year, and have been in Brooklyn for almost a year, I can safely say that hardly a day goes by that I'm not grateful to be exactly where I am.

Part of this is down to a simple sense of well-being. Even on days when I do nothing remotely "New Yorkish," even on days when I barely leave the apartment, I feel good just to be here. And when there are nights like the one last weekend, where I followed up an excellent Indian dinner with several good friends in the East Village with a quick subway ride down to the Knitting Factory to catch the Leftovers and the Queers, followed by a stroll up to Little Italy with six more friends for late night coffee, hot chocolate and hilarity, that just wouldn't have happened if were living in the dark and sullen East Bay, where for one thing almost everything closes by 10 or 11, and even if it didn't, is almost always too far to walk.

People often ask, and I wonder myself, how I could have gone from being the unabashed Bay Area booster I was for many years to a regular reviler of most things Californian. When I reflect on this, I realize that California is almost certainly not as bad as I make it out to be, just as it was probably never quite the paradise I once thought it was.

And also that it's more a case of people needing different things out of where they live at different points in their life. I may have made this analogy before, and if so, forgive me, but when I used to live in the country and did a lot of gardening, I found that transplanting things from one side of the house to the other or from a shady or hilly spot to a sunny or flat spot (or vice versa) could make an astounding difference in how well the plant did. But over the 20-some years I had my place in Northern California, the landscape itself gradually but inexorably altered: places that had once had unobstructed sunlight became overhung with fast-growing bushes or trees; the land itself moved into new contours and shapes every rainy season.

And sometimes, after years of thriving in one place, a plant or tree would no longer do well at all, often to the point where if it was no longer possible to move it, it would stop growing or even die. I think people often operate in much the same way; when I first came to California in 1968, it was like Dorothy stepping out of the monochrome Kansas farmhouse into the technicolor land of Oz. Things that I'd never been much good at in Michigan suddenly seemed easier and more productive, and even when the money was scarce and heartbreak in abundance, I felt glad just to be there, a sensation I had rarely if ever experienced in Michigan.

Why it changed, I don't know, but by the 90s I was experiencing that feeling less and less, and the last few times I've been to California for more than a few days, I started getting bad headaches, almost as though I were allergic to the place. And that sense of well-being, of being in the right place at the right time, seems to have moved me with to New York.

I do think the quality of life has deteriorated in San Francisco and Berkeley for reasons I've often expounded on here, but not so much that they still aren't amazing and beautiful places to live - for those who belong there and like that sort of thing. And indeed, I sometimes wish that I were one of those people, because it would be wonderful to be able to live near my family and old friends without feeling as though I was shortchanging myself on the rest of my life. Today on TV I saw some politician being interviewed from Berkeley, with an azure sky and the Campanile in the background, and it all looked so lovely compared with the gray and frozen streets of New York City. But I knew that for me at least, that sort of "lovely" was a mirage and within a day or two of being there I'd be stalking the streets glowering any time someone tried to tell me what a nice day I should be having.

I still don't know where this New York adventure is leading me, but it was the same way during my first few years in California, which despite my joy in being there, were often hard ones financially and emotionally. Many years later I could look back on my life and see where I had been headed, how everything, even the obstacles and defeats, was leading me toward what I was ultimately meant to do there, but looking forward in the early days, I had nary a clue.

Sometimes it feels that way now, as I still don't have much in the way of meaningful work, and despite knowing quite a few people, still occasionally feel like a madman locked away in his garret (it doesn't help that the apartment I'm living in actually is a garret of sorts). But having had a little more experience with such feelings by now, I no longer worry too much about them. I just reckon that whoever or whatever is in charge of my life (I definitely don't think it's me) didn't bring me this far just to dump me on my ass. And if he/she/it did, then it's probably only because I needed a good ass-dumping to help clarify my thinking.

Bottom line: I'm really, really happy to be here. Several friends are traveling out to the West Coast this weekend to see the Hi-Fives and the Mr. T Experience play a rare (these days, anyway) show together, and while I'm slightly melancholic about not being there with them, I'll console myself with whiling away a probably non-eventful weekend in (for me, anyway) the greatest city on earth.


lefty said...

i've realized that, in order to successfully live in san francisco, you have to be irrationally in love with san francisco, or at least the idea of san francisco. otherwise, it makes no sense to live here. the little glimpses of the golden gate bridge have to be enough to carry you through the months of "i wish i could buy a CD, but we have $25 to last until payday," and the, "wait, why are 40-year-old political ideas called 'progressive'?"

for 10 years, i spent every lunch hour in the seattle public library, looking at picture books of san francisco. we've been here for 8 years now, and i've lost my irrational love. it got crushed under the weight of thousands of white 25-year-olds telling me how i should feel about the middle east.

there's no middle ground. you can't just abide san francisco.

Anonymous said...

New York nowadays is no different. Any appeal there once was to living here is now under constant attack from the 20-40yr old yups and hipsters who have arrived in droves from the 'burbs in order to live out their New York fantasy which, ironically, was never really 'New York' at all, but rather a bland scene they all created when they got here.

As a result, NY is now well on its way to becoming even more 'suburbanized' than the suburbs the yups made their exodus from. My formerly lively urban street is now dead silent by 9pm. Children stay locked up in brownstones rather than playing in the streets. Not to mention, the rents are starting to make SF look affordable.